It was dusk on Friday when the trucks finally made it to Chengxiang Road, first a big orange tanker carrying clean water for the local heating plant, then a smaller blue one with more for household use. As word spread through the grimy apartment buildings, residents in heavy coats poured onto the street with plastic buckets, porcelain basins and steel pots.
Zhang Hongdi, 42, a farmer hired to bring water into this Chinese city from a well in the rural suburbs, sat atop the blue tanker, urging the crowd to form a line and be patient. "There's enough for everyone!" he shouted, as residents peppered him with questions: Where is the water from? How much can we take? When will you come back?
After another day without running water, the third this week in Harbin following an emergency shutoff caused by a massive chemical spill into the region's main river, many in the line expressed relief that help had arrived in their neighborhood. But standing in the cold, waiting their turn in front of a hose connected to the tanker, people also shared their anger.
"All of these problems are caused by the government," one man growled as he struggled to carry a huge red bucket of water back to his apartment. He began to say more, but his wife cut him off as a local official walked over, loudly praising the ruling Communist Party.
Twelve days after an estimated 100 tons of benzene and other toxic compounds poured in the Songhua River following an explosion at a state-owned petrochemical plant, the party is struggling to contain a political crisis as much as an environmental one.
Daring journalists succeeded in publishing a series of reports on Friday describing in remarkable detail the efforts by party officials to cover up the chemical spill. Among the disclosures was an admission by a provincial governor that officials in Harbin initially lied to the public about why they were shutting down the water supply, because they were awaiting instructions from senior party leaders.
On Friday night, reporters received orders from the party's central propaganda department to stop asking questions and go home. All state media were told to use the reports only of the official New China News Agency, the journalists said.
Meanwhile, the central government used the news service to announce it was sending a team of high-level investigators to Harbin. In a sign the party is worried about a public backlash, the report suggested in unusually blunt terms that officials would be disciplined. "Punishments of irresponsible acts are on the way," it said.
The party's moves to limit the political fallout came as a 50-mile-long slick of toxic river water continued to flow through Harbin, a city of 3.8 million people in Heilongjiang province about 600 miles northeast of Beijing. The city said concentrations of benzene had fallen to safe levels but amounts of a related toxic compound, nitrobenzene, remained more than three times above acceptable limits as of 9 a.m. Saturday.
The spill occurred after an explosion Nov. 13 at the Jilin Petrochemical Co. that killed five workers and injured 70 more. The plant, a subsidiary of one of China's largest energy firms, China National Petroleum Corp., is located about 165 miles upstream from Harbin in neighboring Jilin province.
Party officials at the factory and in the Jilin government at first denied the blast caused any pollution, and continued to repeat such statements as recently as Monday.
But in one of several tough reports on Friday, the state-run China Youth Daily quoted an unidentified city engineer in Jilin saying party officials there were told of the chemical spill within eight hours of the explosion. Citing another unnamed source, it also said the Jilin officials released water from a reservoir into the river in an attempt to dilute the spill and fix the problem without alerting the public.
The report did not say whether Jilin officials told the central government of the spill, but it undercut assertions by a senior official with the State Environmental Protection Administration on Thursday that the blast "was handled properly." He admitted the public was not told of the spill, but said local officials and companies were informed.
Reached by phone, an environmental official in Songyuan, a city of more than 400,000 located between Jilin and Harbin, confirmed that officials there were told of the spill but chose to keep it secret. The official, who asked to be identified only by a surname, Li, said the city shut off the part of its water system that is linked to the river but told the public it was just doing repairs.
A water industry official in Harbin, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was likely that farmers and others living in rural areas between Jilin and Harbin were not informed of the spill and drank or used the contaminated water. Benzene poisoning can cause anemia, some forms of cancer and other blood disorders, as well as kidney and liver damage.
It was not until Nov. 21, when they were confronted with tests showing pollution at more than 100 times acceptable levels, that Harbin officials decided to shut down the water supply. Even then, the city said the reason for doing so was to "carry out repair and inspections on the pipe network."
In the most damning report in the state media, China Newsweek magazine said the governor of Heilongjiang province, Zhang Zuoji, told a meeting of 400 officials that the city lied because it was waiting for permission from higher authorities to disclose the spill. The magazine also said participants in the meeting were told that Harbin officials were reluctant to contradict the denials of Jilin officials that were reported in "authoritative media," a reference to official outlets in Beijing.
It was only after an urgent message by provincial officials on Monday night seeking help and guidance from the central government that officials decided to end the coverup, the magazine said. The announcement came at 2 a.m. on Tuesday, less than two hours after city authorities received instructions from Beijing.
A day later, the central government confirmed that a "major water pollution incident" had occurred.
But by then, the damage to the party's credibility had been done. Residents described a rush to leave the city and panicked buying of bottled water and other supplies as the conflicting explanations fueled public confusion and rumors of an imminent earthquake, apparently introduced by a vague television forecast.
By Friday, the city appeared much calmer. But even Liu Ying, the local official on Chengxiang Road, said it was reasonable that residents had doubts about the city's promise to resume pumping safe water on Monday. "People don't believe it," she said. "Everyone wants to store more water, just to be safe."